Dave Lanning meets Michael Bentine in 1967
BANG, I’m dead. Caught flat-footed, bow-legged, my gun stuck firm in my holster. Michael Bentine, fastest draw in the Wild West of… er… Esher, Surrey, laughs and says: “Release the retainer thong, old boy. Don’t worry — your pants won’t fall down!”
It’s all very well for him to mock. He’s been handling guns all his life. Now draws a 4½lb. Blackhawk (very like the Colts used by the legendary cowboy gunfighters) and fires in approximately half a second.
That’s fast, pardners, mighty fast. Right up there with Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp; deadly enough to have Jesse James and Billy the Kid heading out of town on a fast hoss.
But this is Esher, 1967. Michael and I are playing strictly for laughs, here on the patio of his rambling farmhouse, hardly a cattle-call away from Sandown Park racecourse. Which is just as well, because my experience with weapons is strictly military and I never exactly impressed Aldershot at that!
This belt and holster. It’s called a rig. Strap it on loosely. It balances on the thigh. That’s probably why cowboys had bow legs. Arched their knees to prevent the holster dropping. A leather thong ties just above the knee, preventing the holster from flapping.
And there’s another retainer thong, which loops over the hammer of the gun in the holster — presumably to stop it hopping about when you’re a-wooin’ or a-roundin’ up them thar mavericks.
Before you even think about pulling a gun, you must unleash that thong. Of course, I forget… well, I bet Johnny Ringo had the very same trouble when he started practising!
“Draw,” says Michael. I heave for the gun, which stays put. All I manage to do is hitch up my trousers six inches! Meantime, “Lightning” Mike Bentine is clicking his initials in imaginary bullets around my cardiac region.
You could say it’s my “Thong Song” as a would-be gun fighter.
I’m here to discuss Michael’s new series of All Square, which starts on Saturday. And it’s appropriate we should get involved with gun-fights — there’s a running sketch throughout the new series dealing with comic duels.
But, with Bentine, there’s so much to discuss. You just get carried away by his brilliant versatility.
Born in Watford in 1922 of Peruvian parents. Old Etonian. A brilliant physicist (“but I gave it up after the H-Bomb – there was nothing left to discover!”).
A linguist (he can sing the “Yellow Rose of Texas” in five languages, including Latin). An Egyptologist, capable of translating scarab hieroglyphics (“some of my best friends are scarabs!”). A fencer and archer. Accomplished yachtsman. A glider pilot (“I once landed in the buffalo field at Whipsnade Zoo”). A fine cook, a collector of valuable drawings, and an authority on splendid olde Englishe games like “Nelging the Flune” and “Clopping the Fudge.”
Married to a former ballet dancer, Clementina, elegant, blonde, who goes through life reminding her near-genius hubby about such down-to-earth domestic matters as wearing a cardigan. Four children: Marylla (17), Stewart (16), Richard (six), and Serena (five). To Michael they are Fusty, Gus, Peski and Suki respectively.
There are encyclopaedias in the bathroom and flowers in a genuine Inca silver chamber pot (sent by family ties in silver in Peru) on the coffee table.
This is quite a man: this is quite an assignment.
The show? “Should be up to standard, David,” says Michael airily. “Plenty of edging, clopping, and Monarching of the Glenning. You know, it takes me about a year to dream up the crazy sketches for a series. Nearly as long organising ’em, too.
“Had a ball making the new ones. One great laugh from start to finish. That’s usually a good sign.”
As you talk to Michael, he’s liable to switch suddenly to one of his fantastic range of accents. I mention his famous sketch about the Chinese junk sinking the Houses of Parliament. Original idea came when he was talking to a Chinese restaurateur from Limehouse, who was roundly cursing the authorities for knocking down his property for redevelopment.
He’s got his dialect off to a China tea. You name any other: Bentine can turn it on like a tap. How does he do it? “By living with people from the region concerned, and making a study of their speech,” he says. “Most people of mixed blood — like me — have the ability to ape accents.”
He’s uncannily accurate; can even discern the difference between accents from North Kent and Coastline Kent. “Only ones I’m not too hot on are Birmingham, Liverpool and Northern Ireland,” he admits. “I must try to get round to them one day.”
Through all his incredible array of talents, guns remain Michael’s first love. He’s one of the world’s experts on ballistics. Mathematically and theoretically, it’s been proved he could outshoot most of the ballyhooed gunfighters of the last century.
Today, he’s as fast as Sammy Davis, Jr. (“but only with my glasses off”), and only fractionally behind Jerry Lewis (rated by the mathematicians as the fastest gun in the world).
Which is all rather out of my league. I have unhappy memories of guns. After a most war-like Army exercise at Blackdown, Surrey, my ears were ringing for a fortnight after firing a mere dozen rounds from a rifle.
But this is different; hardly any kick and no noise. And it is fun finding how good you are on the draw. Something most men with a touch of the Walter Mittys dream about at some time or the other.
Well, Michael Bentine’s assessment of my speed is 1½ seconds. Which is well up to average, so there. Mind, it’s distinctly posable that I might put a bullet into my right foot in the act. And whether or not I would actually hit anything is highly debatable.
But I can draw and fire in 1½ seconds. Now I’ve only to knock one second off that and at least I can meet Sammy Davis, Jr., on terms.
So pardon me, folks, I’m aiming to git some practice in…